Sitting trembling in my doctor’s waiting room recently – I’m as comfortable with medical check-ups as Trump is with Mexicans – I spotted a photograph in an old Spanish magazine that accompanied an article about folk who collect perfume bottles.
It was a picture of a small blue Bakelite case from the 1940s that contained a perfume called Evening in Paris – and I was immediately projected 65 years back in time to my mother’s bedroom.
On her dressing table was the identical item, one that totally fascinated me as a five-year-old, and I played with it more than with any of my toys.
I gathered from the article that this reproduction of a door with hisand- her shoes outside of it is highly prized by collectors, and can sell for anything between €100 and €200 depending on its condition.
After I saw the Doc, who told me I was as healthy as a horse and I would stay so if I would only cut down on my consumption of Famous Grouse whisky, I called my sister in South Africa, who cleared mum’s house after her death, and asked whether she remembered the Night in Paris box. “Sure,” she said.
When I asked her whether she still had it, back came the reply: “No, it went into the trash with all her other junk.”
Now back in the 1990s, when I began collecting art deco, I befriended a guy called Charlie who did house clearances for a living, and agreed that he could use my garage to store stuff he would either sell at car boot sales or take to the local recycling centre – so long as he let me pick over the items first.
This way I managed to accumulate a quite valuable collection of art deco pieces ranging from Bakelite jewellery to cocktail cabinets and even dining-room suites.
Charlie, at that time, couldn’t distinguish a piece of Moorcroft pottery from a sixpenny Woolworths’ vase and thought Clarice Cliff was a beauty spot in Sussex, but he was a quick learner, and this led to a partnership and, ultimately, the opening of an art deco store in Greenwich in London.
One memorable day he pulled up outside my house in his big white van (well, it may have been white when Noah was nailing the last plank of his ark into place, but was now a yellowy grey) and he was smiling broadly. “Hit pay dirt”, he said.
He opened the rear doors and pointed at a battered old washing machine. “You’re having a laugh. What are we going to do with that thing?” I asked.
“Dump it. But first we’ll remove this.” He opened the machine and took out bundles of cash. The money, totalling just over £5,000, had been hidden by an old man who died, and his family had called Charlie to clear out the house.
While relatives were having a blazing row over who should have what of their dad’s belongings, Charlie looked into the machine before hauling it out, and spotted the dosh. “But, but, but,” I spluttered. You’ve got to give that back.”
He replied: “I would have done, but those people were the nastiest creatures I’d ever come across. They abused each other, coming to blows at one point, then started abusing me.
They even had the cheek to say I was overcharging them to clear the premises. So, finders, keepers.”
I wanted no part of it, and told Charlie he could keep the money. But the machine was only a small part of a much bigger haul. The old man had a wonderful collection of art deco crockery and several pieces of vintage Lalique glass collectively worth a whole lot more than five grand.
Why did the family not keep of these items? Charlie chuckled and said: “The Philistines thought it was just trash, and told me to get it out of their sight.”